2012 Program Preview - Minnesota

Minnesota will need some big performances from QB MarQueis Gray if they want to make it to a bowl game this year. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The last year has been tough for Gopher fans.

Head Coach Jerry Kill's first season included inspiring wins (Iowa and Illinois) as well as demoralizing non-conference losses (New Mexico State, North Dakota State). Despite the disappointing 3-9 record, health-related issues took on the major headlines.

Kill suffered two seizures in the span of 15 days, including one he suffered frighteningly in the closing moments of the New Mexico State. More tragic was the news in early April when LB Gary Tinsley was found dead in his apartment; it was a shock for the school as it was later found that he had died of an enlarged heart.

For Minnesota to return to the competitive years of the Glen Mason years, Kill's going to have to improve the team's recruiting fortunes of recent years. A couple wins similar to the Iowa and Illinois games of 2011 (which were, ironically, also two of their three wins in 2010) will be vital to their future. Finding more success against their non-conference opponents wouldn't hurt either.

After the jump, the prospects worth noting as well as some games and matchups to pencil into your calendar.

References

The Daily Gopher (SB Nation Minnesota community), Off Tackle Empire (SB Nation conference community), SB Nation Minnesota, SB Nation team page, official team site, Bill Connelly's preview for SBN, CBS Sports preview

Notable offensive prospects

Name POS Yr. Early projected Rd (notes)
MarQueis Gray QB Sr. UD
Ed Olson OT RS Jr. UD
Tommy Olson OG Soph. N/A


Notable defensive prospects

Name POS Yr. Early projected Rd (notes)
Keanon Cooper OLB RS Sr. UD
Brock Vereen CB Jr. UD


Summary

There's just not a ton here. Gray is the most crucial component of the team; in the last game of the season in 2011, Gray put the blueprint for Minnesota success on display - avoid turnovers, and run the ball well (167 yards, 2 TDs). Games like the Michigan State contest in which he threw for just under 300 yards are the anomaly. He has to create plays with his feet to open more passing windows underneath.

And I like the Olson brothers' games, despite their different positions. I could see them pushing into mid-day three contention by season's end as NFL prospects.

Key games

Western Michigan (home) - Week 3 (Sat., Sep. 15 - 12:00 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network)

Minnesota needs to stiffen up at home in 2012 to have a shot at bowl eligibility. Facing a quality MAC team in Western Michigan, Minnesota would do well to get this win.

Northwestern (home) - Week 7 (Sat., Oct. 13 - 12:00 p.m. ET, TBD)

It's not a must-win, but it's close. Simply put, this is a Big Ten matchup that Minnesota needs to win. Is need-win a thing? If so, this is it.

Key matchups

QB MarQueis Gray v. Purdue MLB Dwayne Beckford, Week - Sat., Oct. 27

Another winnable Big Ten game looms in late October when Purdue travels to Minneapolis. The result likely hinges on Gray's ability to elude a quality middle linebacker in Beckford, who will likely find himself with plenty of spy duties.

OT Ed Olson v. Illinois DE Michael Buchanan, Week 11 - Sat., Nov. 10

This matchup should tell us quite a bit about both prospects. Both are relatively the same height, but Olson is a good 60 pounds plus heavier. How he deals with a rangy Buchanan, perhaps the strongest member of Illinois' impressive D-line, will give us a good idea of what he could bring to the NFL.

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